Thumb Candy: A Brief History of Video Games Movie Review

This Channel 4 documentary is clearly a labor of love and that helped it avoid some of the sins that similar films usually commit.

Anyone remotely interested in video games as a cultural phenomenon has probably seen documentaries that tried to tell the story of the medium from the moment Space Wars and Pong came out to more recent times. Most of those documentaries have been disastrous (Video Games: The Movie comes to mind) because the story of the medium is incredibly rich and condensing all that information in an hour or two is simply ridiculous. This Channel 4 documentary is clearly a labor of love and that helped it avoid some of the sins that similar films usually commit.

Although the origin of the medium is still a point of contention, whenever we think of the first video games, two usually come to mind: Space War and of course, Pong. As part of the film, those two appear here and there, as well as interviews with their creators who explain their motivations to invent those arcade machines. Of the two games, Pong is the one that most people remember because of its incredible popularity and success and this led to the meteoric rise of Atari and the industry in the West.

But what was happening in the East? In Japan, Taito released Space Invaders and the simple game (which took inspiration in creature films and monsters from H.G. Wells works) took the country and the world by storm. Space Invaders introduced many revolutionary ideas to arcade games: it was simple to understand, it was the first game to include a high-score and it had animated characters. To react to Space Invaders, Americans created Asteroids, a vector-based game where you controlled a small ship that needed to dodge and shoot asteroids before they crashed into you. This led to the development of Defender, Missile Command and Battle Zone. Atari home consoles achieved their peak in the mid 80s and after that, Japan responded with some fantastic days that we still play to this day, such as Pac-Man.

But this is a Channel 4 documentary and one of the best parts is that it explores what was happening in the United Kingdom during the 80s and 90s. ZX Spectrum was a home computer where you could play games and create your own which encouraged players to become creators. For people like me, who have heard about the ZX Spectrum in random podcasts or some obscure articles, seeing some of the games and hear interviews with their creators is fascinating.

By the early 90s, arcades were pretty much gone in America, the console market had crashed and games in general were In decline. Japanese company Nintendo saw this as an opportunity to conquer the home console market not only in Japan, but also America and the rest of the world. They achieved this with Donkey Kong, the NES and the Game Boy which was bundled with Tetris. The documentary ends with some footage from games from the early 2000s, including Jet Set Radio, Shenmue and Tomb Raider.

In an hour, Thumb Candy manages to tell a cohesive story that shows some of the most important events that marked the history of video games as a medium. To be clear, there are some glaring omissions, but the interviews with their creators are so fascinating and the story that’s told is so intriguing, that most will forget about what’s missing and enjoy this film for what it is.